From six months of age babies are developmentally ready to begin consuming solid foods. Have you heard of baby-led weaning and interested to know more?

Traditionally, when introducing solids, parents have been guided to offer their baby pureed textured foods using a spoon. Gradually, different textured purees and mashes would be offered, and then eventually whole pieces of food. In the past 10 to 15 years, baby-led weaning has become popular as an approach to introducing solid foods to babies.

What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning involves providing babies with textured foods appropriate for their current age, and to allow them to hold the food and feed it to themselves. The key principles centre on avoiding spoon feeding with purees or mashed foods. In this method, the emphasis is less about the nutritional intake of food and rather focusses on the food environment and experiences, encouraging babies to try different foods, textures, and flavours independently.

What are the current infant feeding guidelines?

Australian infant feeding guidelines recommend introducing solid foods to babies at around six months of age. From 6 months of age, a baby’s iron requirements cannot be met solely through breastmilk or infant formula, and supplementary foods, especially iron-rich foods are needed to promote continued healthy growth and development and prevent iron deficiency.

The benefits of baby-led weaning

This method allows a baby to control what and how much food they consume and avoids parents or pressuring a baby to finish what they have been served. This encourages a baby to learn to self-regulate and understand their hunger and fullness cues. Uniquely, parents can feed their babies more easily as they don’t have to prepare food specifically for the baby – they can modify family foods.  Parents also have their hands free to eat their meals at the same time. This can encourage families to eat meals together which has been identified as a key enabler to developing healthy eating habits. Further to this, a recent study, Baby-led Introduction to Solids (BLISS) tested a guided approach to baby-led weaning, specifically looking at concerns often attributed to baby-led weaning (choking, iron intake and energy intakes). BLISS advice included offering iron rich food at every meal (wholemeal toast fingers topped with iron fortified baby cereal as a spread, baked beans and strips of cooked red meat), offering an energy dense food at every meal (cheese, peanut butter, meats, or avocado) and avoiding foods, texture sizes and pieces that present a choking risk.   The trial found that babies participating in the guided BLISS approach to complementary feeding showed no differences in iron intakes, energy intakes, growth or choking and reduced food fussiness compared to the control group.

Baby-led weaning food ideas

Some additional nutritious first foods can include stage-appropriate pieces of:

  • Steamed broccoli and cauliflower
  • Steamed baby corn or steamed carrot sticks
  • Meat and chicken pieces
  • Salmon and other types of fish/seafood
  • Cooked tofu cubes
  • Cooked legumes such as chickpeas and red kidney beans
  • Boiled egg or omelette
  • Peanut butter on wholemeal toast fingers
  • Banana slices, watermelon cubes, strawberries

Important tips for finger food:

  • Foods need to be tested before they are offered, food needs to be soft enough to squash between fingers or large and fibrous enough that small pieces do not break off when sucked or chewed e.g. strips of meat.
  • The size of foods offered, need to be as long as the child’s fist on at least one side of the food.
  • Whole foods should never be put into a baby’s mouth as they must do this at their own pace and under their own control.
  • To reduce choking risk, it is always important to sit the baby upright in their highchair and they are never left alone while eating.
  • A variety of different colours, textures and tastes should be offered to make food more exciting for the baby.
  • Avoid adding salt when preparing food items as a baby’s kidneys are unable to effectively excrete excess salt. Also avoid adding sugar or honey to foods to prevent dental cavities.

Things to keep in mind

Choking versus gagging

One of parents’ most common concerns with introducing solids is choking. Choking occurs when a piece of food becomes lodged in the throat and blocks airflow. Whereas, gagging is a normal, safe reflex to get rid of food if it is too challenging to consume. Gagging typically causes a baby to cough the food out, whereas choking is a silent experience due to the airways being blocked. Find out more about choking first aid on Raising Children Network, here.

Importance of continuing milk feeding

While the term weaning is included in the name, introducing solid foods should not replace breastmilk or infant formula. Breastmilk or infant formula continues to be a baby’s primary source of nutrition until 12 months, and solid foods should be used to complement these milk feeds.

Which approach to take?

The primary objectives of introducing solid foods at around 6 months of age (alongside breastmilk or infant formula) is to transition them to a healthy family diet by exposing babies to a variety of food flavours and textures and encourage healthy eating behaviours. Whether this is achieved using traditional methods of introducing solids or baby-led weaning, it is up to each family to decide what the best choice is for them. A combination of both traditional and baby-led weaning can also be considered. This can be achieved by offering solids through iron-fortified baby cereals and nutrient-dense purees while also allowing them to explore food through holding and tasting larger pieces. Overall, baby-led weaning is another strategy parents can add to their tool kit. Whichever method is chosen, it needs to consider these key principles – avoid choking, iron rich foods and offering a wide variety of nutritious foods.

Looking for more information?

  • To find out more about offering exclusive breastmilk and/or infant formula, see page 40 of the NHMRC guidelines. Page 49 has further information around food quantities to offer a baby once solid food has been introduced.
  • Interested in reading some of the recent research on baby-led weaning and the implications on childhood obesity? Read the open access systematic review here.